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Rodeo Dream: Chloé Zhao on The Rider

Brady Jandreau in The Rider, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The Rider, Chloé Zhao’s miraculous second feature, possesses a narrative that feels both as old as time and riveting in its newness: A young rodeo star has a tragic accident and must battle adversity on his way to recovery.

You know this story.

Except, through Zhao’s eyes, “redemption” looks different from what we’ve been conditioned to expect in a culture built on stories of success and celebrity.

Every character on screen in The Rider is a real person, playing a version of themselves. But this is not a documentary. The performances in The Rider are exhilarating and deep and true.

The Rider is built around the life of Brady Jandreau, a young Lakota cowboy who lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation. After a riding accident that caused a traumatic brain injury, Brady was told that his dream — becoming a rodeo star — could kill him.

But Brady continued to ride.

In The Rider, Zhao tells a version of Brady’s story, a story that necessarily involves those in his life who care about him. His circle includes his father, Tim, and sister, Lily — played by Jandreau’s real-life family — as well as older rider Lane, played by Lane Scott, a rodeo star who Brady looks up to but who has been left severely disabled by his own riding accident.

The film is about familial love, friendship, and the wordless, moving relationship between man and animal.

Brady understands horses like probably nobody you’ve ever seen before on screen; they are his life. He understands what it is to be born to do one thing well. And after that thing is taken, what becomes the substance of a life?

The Rider begins in the wake of a tragedy. What follows is the transformation of a dream deferred — a dream of rodeo lights and acclaim — into a life of quiet epiphany.

Working again with cinematographer Joshua James Richards, Zhao made The Rider on the heels of her debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and it is released this spring by Sony Pictures Classics.

Filmmaker: Tell me about how your filmmaking process has developed since your first film, Songs My Brother Taught Me. How did you wind up making this film so quickly after Songs, which took many years?

Zhao: Well, nobody was giving me any opportunities after Songs. I wasn’t offered anything, so I was back to the drawing board, and just the thought of trying to write one of those $2 million movies, trying to raise the money for it…. I struggled for three years for my first film and, instead, lost [the budget] and had to make the film with nothing. I’m like, “I can’t do it again! So, let me just start with nothing and then just do something real cheap. And do it right away because I can’t do the development thing anymore. Let’s keep it so small, about this one person. We know exactly how much our money can buy us, and let’s see what’s the best that we can do within our parameters.” I was so traumatized [by Songs].

I had eight people for my first film, and I had six people for The Rider, including me. It was minimal and very, very low budget. I was the AD, the DP and I were doing the makeup on [Brady’s] head. I was cooking the food for everyone; my DP and I were production design. The only lights we used were Walmart — you know, a LED ribbon. So, the process very much came out of these limitations because you don’t really have a lot of choices. I mean, I decided to make the film in August and started shooting in September. There was no time to go deep into how this vision was going to be. There was a lot of improvisation from the DP, the director and the actor, in a way — like a dance.

Filmmaker: Did you meet Brady through Songs My Brothers Taught Me? Had he had his accident at that point? And had Lane already had his accident at that point?

Zhao: I didn’t meet any of these guys until after Songs was over. It already had gone to festivals, and I went back to visit, and then I met Brady. I knew of Lane because he’s Brady’s best friend. I had heard about him all the time and had talked to him on Facebook, but I didn’t meet him until the night before we started filming with him because he was in an Omaha rehabilitation center. He had had his accident four years before shooting the film.

Filmmaker: When did you meet Brady relative to when he had his injury, and at what point did the injury figure into your story? Was there a story before he had his injury?

Zhao: I met Brady around July 2014; he was injured in April 2016, and we made the film in September 2016. I made up a few stories for him before his injury, but none of them worked.

Filmmaker: When you decided to make the film in August, had you a finished script at that point?

Zhao: No. I didn’t really have a script until my DP said, “We’re leaving tomorrow for the first day of the shoot. Is the script ready?” I said, “Well, that page is ready. That scene is ready.” But I knew the arc was quite simple. It’s a very simple story, and the script was only 65 pages. But at the last minute, I was trying to finish it.

Filmmaker: So, what does that document look like? Did it begin as a sort of treatment? Did you build scenes based on some of things that Brady and other people said?

Zhao: Yeah, a lot of that. I listened, I spent time with them, and then I wrote a treatment that had the whole arc. Then, I just wrote the script like everybody would, from page one to the last page. There was a lot of rewriting in the editing because, for both this film and my last film, I edit for a couple months by myself first. I finish the first cut. I feel like that’s a thing that I have to do — when you shoot this way, so many things are going to get thrown out, and you have to rewrite it. It’s almost like your first draft of your script [is done] in the editing room.

Filmmaker: Brady and his family, these men, they are real people. How do you work with them? Do you call them actors, do you call them people, do you — in the Robert Bresson mode — call them models? How do you think of them?

Zhao: I see them as actors. Sometimes, people ask, “Is this a documentary, a docudrama?” I’m not a huge fan of the word, and I understand why we have to use it because it wasn’t like I was interested in telling a story about head injury or masculinity and then I found these nonactors and cast them to play these roles. I met Brady and immediately — within, like, three hours — was so drawn to him. I felt like he could be a movie star, like I discovered a young Heath Ledger or something. So, I said to myself, “I’m gonna write a script for him.” And this is a year and a half before he even got hurt. So, I was attracted to him as an actor first and foremost. If you ask Brady to be himself, that is not what you see on the screen. This is why I think there’s a danger in people thinking, “Oh, they’re just being themselves.” The real Brady would not say [certain lines of dialogue] the way he does here. He’s acting. He’s a really good actor. I think the reason why it feels like they’re being “themselves” is because even though I liked him as an actor first, I came up with a story that is written specifically for him. I know where his range is, so even though he is acting, there’s a comfort zone as well.

Filmmaker: And how did the aftermath of his injury — the effect it had on his abilities — affect you in the moviemaking process?

Zhao: It definitely affected me in terms of what overall message I wanted the film to convey. In real life, I wished that Brady would see hope in his life after the rodeo, which inspired me to take his character to that direction.

Filmmaker: He’s magnificent. What kind of direction would you give him on set? And what was the collaboration like between you, him and the other actors?

Zhao: I don’t really rehearse. So many of [his] lines he had already said to me in real life, including, “If any animals around here get hurt like I did, they would get put down.” That’s when I decided to make the film, when I heard that line.

I would always [start the day] by going through all the dialogue with them, saying, “How would you say that?” And then I would do [what they said]. Every once in a while, I would catch something and feel like, “Oh, that’s not in the script, it just happened.” And then I would [talk] to my DP and stay calm, pull back and make sure we got coverage so that we could use that spontaneous moment. That’s something I learned from my first film. I’d get really excited when something cool happened, but then I never got the coverage to use it later.

Filmmaker: What kind of shooting ratio did you have? How much footage?

Zhao: Probably about 50 hours, which is not that much. My last one had 100. The danger with making films like this is that you’re not disciplined enough. You have nonactors, you have all these cool things happening, and you have digital, so you just keep shooting. I learned a lot of lessons from my first one, and now I actually go in there as if I’m making a Spielberg movie. I’m really strict because you have to be. Everything else is gonna be spontaneous — the people, the animals, the events, the weather — so if you don’t hold it down with a strict story and how you’re gonna shoot it, you’re just going to lose. And since you also have to do five people’s jobs, if you don’t have the script to go back to it’s really fatal.

Filmmaker: How do you plan the shoot? Did you shoot in order?

Zhao: No, not in order, because I had to shoot anything of [Brady’s] head later. [The shooting schedule] was based on who’s available, who’s in town, and what event is happening.Let’s say the horse sale or rodeo — I shoot at these places for free because I know these people. If we stage [those scenes], it’s going to be so expensive, so we say, “These are the events we’re gonna go to and that I know will bring the production value.” And also, I will shoot every magic hour if I’m alive.

Filmmaker: Yeah [laughs].

Zhao: I say to young filmmakers, if you don’t have money to buy lights, there’s the best light in the world and please plan your shoot accordingly. So we don’t shoot until 2 p.m., and then we shoot interiors or whatever. If it’s cloudy, we will shoot exteriors. But we never shoot, unless we absolutely have to, exteriors with a bright sun and no clouds. I almost never got to say, “My vision of the blocking is like this.” I would only listen to my DP, because for your film to look good, you’re going to have to listen to your DP. And things looked all right, you know?

Filmmaker: [laughs] The film looked stunningly beautiful.

Zhao: [laughs] Oh, thank you.

Filmmaker: You said you’re able to shoot in these locations for free because you have spent time building these relationships. So when you’re shooting in a public space, do you get clearances from the people in the back? Or is there a sign that says, “If you’re here, we’re gonna be filming?”

Zhao: For example, the horse sale — that horse auction house is run by a cousin of my friend. And, so, we just walked in with the camera and followed Brady. People know him at the horse sale, and there are all these extras, who are perfectly costumed, all these old cowboys — you couldn’t have cast and staged this. We were just filming, and occasionally someone would look over, but they didn’t really care. This would never work in New York, but in South Dakota it doesn’t bother them that much. Having lived in New York for 12 years, I like this kind of nonprecociousness of people [in South Dakota]. If my car breaks down, they’ll stop and help. That’s something about Middle America that we forget — other than all the craziness that’s going on, it is really [full of] generally good people who don’t think bad of other people. Now, if I had someone’s face close [to the camera], I would probably ask for a release, but it’s never been a problem.

Filmmaker: How long had you known Brady before filming?

Zhao: A year and a half.

Filmmaker: Can you imagine any way you could have made this film if you hadn’t just put in that time to develop relationships and trust, if you had just come weeks before and done casting?

Zhao: Probably not. It’s so personal and involves so many people and their lives. Lane trusts me because Brady trusts me, and Brady trusts me because the rancher he works for, and a lot of people he knows, knew me from my last film. All these people at the ranch where he’s worked I’ve known for four years. So, The Rider wouldn’t have existed without my first film.

Filmmaker: People trusted you with their lives, their dreams and their personal tragedies. What were your fears? Were you afraid of getting things wrong? Or did you feel confident?

Zhao: No. I was always afraid, from writing to shooting to editing to showing it. You are playing god a little bit, and these people are not trained in film, so they don’t know how much they are exposing themselves and what that could mean in the editing room. In editing, you could totally have them do something and have it mean something else. Even when I am doing an interview, I come across differently because of how they edit it. So, you constantly have to struggle. I want to be provocative, I want to push, but is it going to be hard for them? There are moments in my last film that felt like maybe I pushed certain actresses too hard at certain parts. Afterwards, we would have a conversation and go, “Yeah, we needed to do that to get there.” But I think 99 percent of the time, I walk away feeling like I can sleep at night. There is one or two percent where I’m like, “I don’t know.” But people are tougher than you think. I look forward to one day not having to worry about this because it does affect the creative process, especially on the first film. It was hard. We’re dealing with something a little bit sensitive, and you really want to show things, and you have the footage, and it’s so great and provocative, but I chose to leave [some of it] on the editing [room floor].

Filmmaker: Could you talk about shooting the scene with Brady and Lane at the physical rehabilitation facility? What was that like?

Zhao: It was definitely one of these moments where you question how far you can push. I had never met Lane, and we drove eight hours to Omaha. This was toward the end of the shoot, and I was running out of time for other things. So, it was a leap of faith. We couldn’t get his mom on the phone, so I didn’t know if she was going to be there. I didn’t know if the facility was going to be all right, what it looked like, how much Lane could [physically] do — I didn’t know any of these things. I just knew that Lane wanted to do it because he wrote me on Facebook. Brady tells me, “Just trust me. Lane will want to do this. Let’s just go.” So, I had to trust Brady — it’s his story.

The whole scene was shot in four hours because that’s all the window we had. It was also Brady’s first time seeing Lane at the rehabilitation center because he had just gotten there and because Brady had just gotten hurt. So, it was also the first time Lane had seen Brady since Brady’s injury. Brady said to me, “You know, I never really understood Lane’s pain until I was hurt and my riding was at risk.”

The people that work there said, “We’ll put him on a saddle.” I said, “Where is the saddle? Can we shoot there?” In those moments, you kind of have to just make do with what you have. The people in Omaha were amazing because they love Lane, and they saw how much he wants to show the progress he’s made. There was a documentary crew that was going to make a feature doc about Lane, but they pulled out after he got hurt, which is so silly, because that’s where the story starts.

The ending was not the ending that I wrote in the script because I didn’t know that was gonna happen. I just asked Brady to describe what riding is like, as if he was trying to get Lane to remember. The two of them rode together all their lives, so that just happened so naturally. Our job in that moment was just to stay calm. Lane was probably really tired, and it was hard to say, “We had such an amazing moment, but we need to do it three more times to get the coverage for it to really work.” But Lane loved that because he was being treated like he was doing a job, not as someone who’s disabled.

Filmmaker: You said that there was a crew that was going to make a film about Lane and then they pulled out when he was injured. For you, that’s where the story began. Do you think that speaks to your perspective as a filmmaker and also as a person? What is it about your background that wants to see a different representation of America?

Zhao: Well, two things. One, I think our culture celebrates the heroes, the ones who win the game. If I have a boy, a kid, I want my boy to not have to feel all that pressure from the media and from society thinking that he can’t be vulnerable. That’s one thing. And two, I think because I’m Chinese, growing up I’ve always felt like I’m “the bad person” [because of] my country and politics. I left for England when I was 15 and then America when I was 19, but I always feel like what I hear about where I come from in the news, they are the bad people.

Filmmaker: Do you mean the Chinese?

Zhao: Yeah.

Filmmaker: And that’s what you felt about yourself and your culture from the time you were 15?

Zhao: When I’m in the West, yeah. Now, it’s a little bit better. Back then, it was just like, you know, “They’re communist.”

Filmmaker: As a 15 year old, which in any person’s development is a formative time, did it feel very personal?

Zhao: It felt very personal because I know my mom and my dad are not bad people. It’s like the generalization of Middle America and these evil Christian Trump voters. Because my country is not exactly the favorite country in the world for some people, there are so many complex feelings: There’s inferiority, embarrassment but also anger. Now, I love both countries. But just like I am a Democrat, I am also very critical of the Democrats and how we do things, and I love people who are in both parties. I think that’s probably why I have a little bit more sympathy for the heartland in that kind of way.

Filmmaker: A film I thought of when I saw The Rider was Claire Denis’ Beau Travail. Probably because of the context and the time in which I saw that film, and the people with whom I saw it, it made me very much aware of a traditionally male scopophilic gaze, the sort that  generally objectifies women. That movie is unique because it’s seeing men in a community — men working together, men synchronizing and in relationship with one another in a specific way — obviously, from a different perspective, and probably from within a different value system than what is traditionally offered. How much do you think your gender informs your gaze as a filmmaker when you’re telling a story that’s dominated by men?

Zhao: People ask me, what is it with you and masculinity? But I never thought about this until the reviews. I’m a feminist — I went to a women’s college, for God’s sake! [Laughs]. But I really believe that true feminism is also seeing women as individuals, not just a group of people that needs to do something. And that intuition, that gut feeling, of what I am presenting should be seen as [being] like that, as opposed to I should make certain types of films or tell certain types of stories because I’m a woman. I think that’s the danger, with both persons of color and female filmmakers, because then you’re just becoming part of a bigger agenda that is still actually created by the majority. Making the majority agenda make sense — I don’t want to play into that because we have to be allowed to be individuals before being labeled as women, Asians, black. To me, that’s the real feminism, where we all become equal but as individuals, as opposed to a group of people. I look forward to the day when we don’t have to do that anymore as women. Like, we are just individuals, we’re making films, but it’s going to take us becoming a group first to get there. I would never go into [a film] thinking, “This is a great film for the feminist agenda. I should cast this person because I think it represents….” That would defeat the purpose. Just be who I am, and because I am a woman, I must already have a different experience growing up than you. If I just be who I am, that’s enough.

Filmmaker: I’m totally generalizing here, but how do you think the industry wants you to be? What is it nudging you toward that maybe is not appealing to you?

Zhao: For example, I will not be your token Asian female minority director. If I were to go make that film, it’s going to be my film. It’s going to be “a Chloé Zhao film” and that might not be the biggest agenda you want to push. So, I’m just not interested in that, and there’s a lot of opportunity, suddenly, for that. I’m a bit jaded, maybe because I’m Chinese. A year ago, nobody was helping me out, and suddenly you want to invite me to your club? Now? I’m very wary of it. And then in another year, when there’s the next trend of whichever minority you want to help, you’re gonna go for them. Those aren’t the long-lasting relationships I want to build. So, I’m very careful at a time like this, even though I suddenly have these opportunities.

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